The scenario: Out of the ashes of some global catastrophe, humanity rises to re-establish civilization. The question: How far could such a society realistically rebuild without the aid of fossil fuels?

Photo Credit: thierry ehrmann via flickr | CC BY 2.0.

University of Leicester’s Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow working in astrobiology and the search for microbial life on Mars, cogitates on this question in a must-read piece over at Aeon:

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

In fact, the problem is even worse than that. Many of the chemicals required in bulk to run the modern world, from pesticides to plastics, derive from the diverse organic compounds in crude oil. Given the dwindling reserves of crude oil left in the world, it could be argued that the most wasteful use for this limited resource is to simply burn it. We should be carefully preserving what’s left for the vital repertoire of valuable organic compounds it offers.

But my topic here is not what we should do now. Presumably everybody knows that we must transition to a low-carbon economy one way or another. No, I want to answer a question whose interest is (let’s hope) more theoretical. Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels? And the answer to that question is: maybe – but it would be extremely difficult. Let’s see how.

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This is an interesting exercise. Read the rest at Aeon. See also – because it is apparently impossible to talk about the post-apocalypse and fossil fuels at the same time without mentioning Mad Max – this article about the environmental impact that Mad Max: Fury Road had in Namibia, when it filmed there in 2012.


Contact the author at rtgonzalez@io9.com.

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